My First Year vs. My Fifth Year

Sunday, May 31, 2015

I’ve been teaching for five years now. Five! This is pretty impressive for someone who almost drowned in a sea of her own tears her first year. I remember one Sunday around October of Year One, I was so despondent and full of agony that my roommate just sat there while I talked, staring at me like this:

But I’ve made it! Way fewer people stare at me like that now.

In many ways, I can’t believe it’s been five years. So much of this teaching gig feels so new, and I still find myself making rookie mistakes. But then in other ways, when I think about the teacher I was my first year, the difference is so stark that I wonder if she was actually a different person and I’ve simply been body-snatched.

This is what I mean.

My First Year
My Fifth Year

I can’t believe that teacher down the hall yells at students to stop running. That’s so mean! It’s just running… they’re kids!


“You forgot your homework again? That’s okay. Whenever you can bring it is fine!”

“You forgot your homework again? That’s okay. You shall complete it during lunch with me while I eat tuna and blast my Alanis Morisette Pandora station.”

I’m going to make 95 cupcakes for every month to celebrate students’ birthdays!

I’m going to use running high-fives to celebrate students’ birthdays!

I can't believe the principal is making us use this reading strategy he created. There's no data behind it, he created it by himself, and his only teaching experience was twenty years ago as a math teacher! Oh, well. Time to redo this month's lesson plans to fit it in and abandon my more effective, research-based strategy.

I will put up the reading strategy poster in my room and when an administrator comes in my room I will point to it and say "Make sure you use this strategy, kiddies!" And that is all.


I’m going to laminate the heck out of every poster I own so I will never buy decorations again!

Storage? Not a priority.

Um, excuse me, Target employee. Where are your giant plastic Rubbermaid tubs? Good. I will be needing ALL OF THEM.

Teaching will be just like Freedom Writers or Dead Poets Society!

Teaching is a mix of Cast Away, Children of the Corn, Mary Poppins, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Star Wars, The Sound of Music, Mr. Holland's Opus, Whiplash, Harry Potter, and Snakes on a Plane.

Teaching supply stores are the best!

Teaching supply stores make my paycheck disappear!

50% of my students failed this assignment? These kids are so low!

50% of my students failed this assignment? Man, was I on bath salts when I taught this? What can I do differently when I reteach? And can it involve Oreos?

Look how clean my car is!

Look at:
-The layer of coffee sludge that has made the cupholder in my console its home
-The 18 Tupperware containers littering my back seat
-The random school stuff that has been in the truck for months that I’m hoping I will one day have the motivation to actually take it out, but, realistically, know that I won’t

I can't believe that news story about the teacher who was sneaking vodka in his Big Gulp cup at school!

I can definitely believe that news story about the teacher who was sneaking vodka in his Big Gulp cup at school.*

“Oh, I don’t need any construction, paper, thanks. I don’t think we’ll be using it anytime soon.”

“Sure, I’ll take that construction paper. Not sure when I’m going to use it, but let me place it in my Hoarding Closet.”


Scary parent? Bring it. Yawn.

Grades are due? NOOOO I CAN’T DO THIS!!!

Oh, grades are due? Oops. I’ll be needing six hours, a gallon of iced coffee, and two scheduled Netflix breaks.

This is really, really, really, really hard.

This is really, really hard.
But also really, really great.

I will change these children's lives! I will be the superhero!

This is not about me. I'm here not to be recognized, but to stand beside other people as they figure out what is recognizable about them and how to use that for good.

I only need one stapler in my room at all times.

I need eight staplers in my room at all times.


I am going to really miss these kids! But also, I CAN’T WAIT FOR SUMMER.

I’m going to wear the cutest teacher clothes ever!

Oh, orthopedic shoes. Mama loves you.

I’m going to use a whole sheet of paper to print a 5-question quiz and make 88 copies.

I’m going to fit EIGHT five-question quizzes on one piece of paper and only have to print eleven! And then I get to use the GUILLOTINE!

Oh, I mean paper cutter.

In general, I think the changes have been mostly positive. I’ve never been one to think that teachers must develop this tough exterior or succumb to being jaded and cranky (though I have felt those ways, to be sure). Teaching has made me stronger. Not in a stomp-around-“I’m-in-charge” kind of way, but in a quieter way.

I’ve also learned how to work smarter. I’ve built a hierarchy for my priorities that works for me, and I’ve learned to conserve my energy for what matters (teaching and caring for my kids) instead of spending it on things that don’t matter so much.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be in the game, but it’s good to know I’m becoming a better player.

In the Game of Tomes.

(I couldn't resist.)



* "Can definitely believe" does not mean  "think highly of" or "am planning to emulate." Just clarifying for my mom.

A Letter to my Student Teacher

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My student teacher’s last day was a couple of weeks ago. I brought her some of my favorite school supplies (including this red stapler, THE BEST), she brought me some extremely excellent treats and a small balloon (because she knows I’m afraid of the big ones). We hugged, I cried. Then I put my scarf over my head and said I was done crying, and she said, “It’s okay! You can cry!” and I cried some more.

I also had a letter for my student teacher, but decided not to print it out for her last day. After I wrote it, I realized it was more than a letter to just her—it’s a letter to all the brave women and men who will find themselves as teachers soon. So now I’d like to share it with her and with you.

(I’ve redacted her name, but you can pretend it’s yours in the blank spaces.)

Dear __________,

It is May.



I cannot thank you enough for your help this year. I mean it. I actually don’t know a good way of expressing my appreciation. All the sour gummi worms in the world in a big pile guarded by all the puppies in the world who are wearing all the diamond bracelets in the world as collars couldn’t come close to how valuable you’ve been to me. So thank you, not only for your help in the classroom, but for your encouragement, kindness, and bright spirit in a year that, apart from school, has felt like a dirty subway tunnel. Seriously. You were my candle. Lighthouse. All those metaphors about things that are bright and guide-y, you are them.

You are also already WAY ahead of where I was going in to my first year, so I’m not at all worried about your first steps into the teaching wilderness. But here are some of my most important pieces of advice. Many of them I’ve already told you, and many of them you don’t even need, but I’m old and can’t remember which ones I’ve told you and love repeating myself (as you well know), so here goes:

Invest in several pairs of orthopedic shoes. (Your feet, knees, and back will thank me later.)

Laugh at yourself. Often.

There is a difference between being nice and being kind, and between being firm and being mean. Choose kind. Choose firm.

Pick your battles. The people above you will make decisions you don’t agree with, and it will happen often.  Ask yourself this question: “Does this issue significantly and inevitably impede my ability to teach and care for my students effectively?” If it does, approach the decision-maker with your concerns calmly and diplomatically. If not, do what you need to do to be in compliance and nothing more.

Glitter may seem like a good idea, but it’s not.


Be friendly to other teachers, but also be wary. Surround yourself with positive people, and try to set an example for the people who are always negative (the way you set an example for me during most of this past fall!). Do not offer an ear to the teachers who blame their problems on children.

Embrace your mistakes because they’re coming, my friend. There will be small ones, and there will be big ones that you will think about for years later. They will happen no matter how careful you are because we are human and humans are imperfect. But is much better to make mistakes and apologize for them than to resist them and make excuses (or worse, believe you are above making mistakes).

If you’re about to make 100 double-sided, 6-page packets and someone comes into the copy room needing to make 70 single-sided copies, let them go in front of you.

Be kind to everyone, but make a special effort to be kind to the people behind the scenes—librarians, receptionists, cafeteria and custodial staff, etc.

On the bad days, don’t be afraid to lock your door and turn off the lights during your conference period and sit under your desk and cry and eat candy that you meant to give to students.

On the really bad days, start making a list of all the awesome stuff you’re going to do when you leave, and leave right after school no matter how much work you have (it will get done!).

If you find yourself in an arguing with a student, you’ve already lost.

DEVOLSON (the Dark, Evil Vortex of Late September, October, and November) can destroy you if you're not careful. Awareness is half the battle.

Feedback is so unbelievably important. Grade and hand back every assignment, even if you know it isn’t going in your gradebook.

Go to the school dances and make a dancing fool out of yourself. 

Create posters for athletic games and fine arts performances and yell your heart out.  

Arm wrestle your students. 


Sing LOUD.

Oh, and remember all the stupid things I did this year? Don’t be like me.

(But also remember that you will do stupid things, too.)

(But probably not as stupid.)

This is one of the most important, most rewarding, most incredible, and most terrifying jobs in the world, and you are ready. Your future students are lucky young men and women indeed. I can say with certainty that it has been an honor and a privilege to pass my teaching torch to you.

Now, go!

Run fast and run boldly in the direction of greatness!

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

Got a little carried away with the torch/Olympic thing. It happens.